Monday, August 15, 2011

Writing in the Network

I'm reading a new book: Manuel Castells' The Rise of the Network Society, second edition (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Originally published in 1996, this book makes a strong case for the monumental shift caused by the emergence of electronic networks. Though I'm just beginning the book, clearly Castells provides exhaustive, well-researched evidence that networks have changed every sphere of life: political, social, economic, religious, educational, criminal, and mental. I'm thinking, then, that he may provide a useful context for exploring how composition and rhetoric have changed.

In the Prologue, Castells introduces the general problem for anyone wanting to write in a networked world. In speaking of how global networks switch on and off individuals and groups according to their perceived relevance to the global network, Castells notes that:
There follows a fundamental split between abstract, universal instrumentalism, and historically rooted, particularistic identities. Our societies are increasingly structured around a bipolar opposition between the Net and the self. [Thus], in this condition of structural schizophrenia between function and meaning, patterns of social communication become increasingly under stress. … The information society, in its global manifestation, is also the world of Shinrikyo, of the American militia, of Islamic/Christian theocratic ambitions, and of Hutu/Tutsi reciprocal genocide. … Postmodern culture, and theory, indulge in celebrating the end of history, and, to some extent, the end of reason, giving up on our capacity to understand and make sense, even of nonsense. (3, 4)
As I understand him, then, Castells is saying that the complexity and irresistible momentum of the global networks is overwhelming individuals and groups who seek refuge in chauvinistic creeds and identities to provide the meaning and values that they need. As one might suspect from the sheer length of Castell's book and the amount of energy that has gone into writing it, Manuel Castells does not accept the end of history and reason. Rather, he affirms his faith that the world has pattern and that human reason can make sense of that pattern. His book is one attempt to discern and describe that pattern.

This is, perhaps, the heart of modern rhetoric: the use of reason (the regular and sharable heuristics of thought and communication) to explore and explain the world and to inform human activity in that world. But I wonder if Castell accepts an essentialist view of reason that posits one standard of reason applicable to all people, at all times, in all situations, or if he accepts a complex view of reason that posits a relative standard of reason negotiated by a group of people, at a given time, in a given situation. I suppose I will find out.

Whichever way he goes, he poses an interesting challenge for rhetoric: how do we communicate in a world that is polarized, on one hand, by global processes that can subsume and crush individuals and groups with an economic logic and, on the other hand, by the fragmentation of individuals and groups into discrete, antagonistic identities that not only resist communication with other groups, but deny that communication is possible? This is a tough challenge, if indeed, it is real.


P.S.— It happened that just an hour after writing this post, I came across a NYTimes article Does Your Language Shape How You Think? by Guy Deutscher. Mr. Deutscher argues that we have recovered enough from the excesses of Benjamin Whorf to look more clearly at the influence of language on the way we think, including the way we reason.
For many years, our mother tongue was claimed to be a “prison house” that constrained our capacity to reason. Once it turned out that there was no evidence for such claims, this was taken as proof that people of all cultures think in fundamentally the same way. But surely it is a mistake to overestimate the importance of abstract reasoning in our lives. After all, how many daily decisions do we make on the basis of deductive logic compared with those guided by gut feeling, intuition, emotions, impulse or practical skills? The habits of mind that our culture has instilled in us from infancy shape our orientation to the world and our emotional responses to the objects we encounter, and their consequences probably go far beyond what has been experimentally demonstrated so far; they may also have a marked impact on our beliefs, values and ideologies. We may not know as yet how to measure these consequences directly or how to assess their contribution to cultural or political misunderstandings. But as a first step toward understanding one another, we can do better than pretending we all think the same.
I accept that we do not all think the same. I think common experience tells us this is so, and I think research is beginning to confirm that it is so. The challenge of academic rhetoric for me, then, is to reason about the world and our activities in the world, while at the same time being conscious of the thought structures we are employing and being explicit about them. Finally, we must employ strategies of engagement with our audiences that allow for those who, through willfulness or ignorance, disregard our own impeccable and exemplary reason. I must think more about those strategies.
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